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NFL: Wild Card Weekend Sees Cowboys And Ravens On Top

football

We are officially in the heat of the playoff battle and the race to Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona now, with the first weekend of knockout football completed. Football is so much quicker come playoff time, with everyone knowing they are just one mistake away from being one-and-done. With eight teams battling it out for the right to just survive one more week in the Super Bowl race, there were four fascinating tussles played out over the weekend, and we will review the action for you here.

Arizona Cardinals at Carolina Panthers (16-27)

The Carolina Panthers progress with a dominant home win here, getting back to the form and style of play that got them to the post-season last year. Jonathan Stewart was the standout offensive player, taking 24 carries for 123 yards and a touchdown against one of the league’s best run defenses. Stewart has breathed new life into the Panthers run game since returning from injury, and he gives Carolina a chance of being successful going forward. But to win another playoff game, Cam Newton will have to be a lot more accurate when throwing. Newton was high, wide and late on a number of throws that should have been relatively routine. With the Panthers on the road to the Seattle Seahawks and the Legion of Boom in the divisional round, there will be no room for error. The defense shut down a shoddy offense that was devoid of talent at quarterback and in the backfield, but tougher tests lie ahead for this Panthers team.

It was a sadly predictable one-and-done playoff jaunt for the Arizona Cardinals, who eventually succumbed to the staggering regularity with which they lost star players this season. The Cardinals battled manfully to reach this stage, but Ryan Lindley was shown to be completely out of his depth at this level, throwing 16/28 for a meagre 82 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. They were also hamstrung by a horrific punting game, which continually put the Panthers into terrific starting positions. If Arizona can get this group fit and healthy for 2015, they could easily be back here next year. But Bruce Arians’ side will have plenty of “what if…?” thoughts between now and then. Ted Ginn’s crazy return fumble spoke to the frustration and desperation to try and make something happen. Their efforts didn’t deserve such a lame limp out of the post-season.

Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers (30-17)

The Baltimore Ravens provided the annual shock of the wild card round, turning over their divisional rivals on the road. The cerebral Ravens produced a game the likes of which they never turned in during the regular season. Joe Flacco played outstandingly well, moving the chains consistently by throwing 18/29 for 259 yards and two touchdowns, with Steve Smith Sr. going over a hundred yards receiving for the first time since week six. Owen Daniels also tabbed seventy yards off four catches as the veterans used their nous and big-game mentality to gash the stretched secondary. With a lead, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil were able to focus solely on pressuring Ben Roethlisberger in the second half, with the defense coming up with five sacks that killed offensive momentum time and again, eventually knocking the quarterback out of the game with whiplash. A secondary that was expected to be besieged stood tall, with Will Hill and Lardarius Webb stewarding their younger colleagues into a big performance that earned them the dubious honour of a game in Foxboro against the New England Patriots next weekend.

The Steelers fell flat here, with the absence of LeVeon Bell impacting them in all facets of offensive play. With neither Ben Tate or Josh Harris finding much success against a stout run defense, the Steelers were depending on Big Ben to carve open the secondary with Antonio Brown and company. Instead, Roethlisberger found pressure in his face all day and, although he threw for over three hundred yards, gave up two costly interceptions that swung the game away from the home side. With James Harrison unable to exploit undrafted rookie left tackle James Hurst, Joe Flacco had a surprising amount of time to pick apart an ageing and hurt secondary. The Steelers kept in touch, but were never able to close the gap sufficiently, so they will watch the rest of the playoffs on TV.

Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts (10-26)

The Indianapolis Colts march on, with a fairly conclusive and dominant victory at home. Andrew Luck threw impeccably, completing 31/44 for 376 yards and a touchdown. Some of his few incompletions were even down to drops by his receivers (a thing that has dogged the Colts all season), so his numbers could have potentially been even more impressive. TY Hilton broke the hundred yard barrier again, while Dan Herron had a number of big plays too, finishing with 141 all-purpose yards. That being said, the Colts leading runner only had one big carry, a 27 yard touchdown gallop. Aside from that, the Colts run game was non-existent, which will give them grief going forward. But they must be happy with a defensive effort that gave up just ten points and 265 yards of total offense. The Colts move on to a road game against the Denver Broncos for a place in the AFC Championship game, a clash that is sure to be a much sterner test for this young team.

Another year, another playoff loss for the Cincinnati Bengals. Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis are coming under fire for falling at the first playoff hurdle once again, but their chances were greatly compromised by the loss of AJ Green and Jermaine Gresham in the passing game. Without real deep threats, the Colts defense was able to load the box and take down Jeremy Hill before he ever really hit his stride. Dalton’s completion rate hovered just above 50%, which will win very few road playoff games, and although he avoided his typical interceptions, he did lose a fumble. The Bengals had to be the models of efficiency in this game with no receivers and no pass rush (only getting to Andrew Luck once as he had time to pick the secondary apart all day), but the Bengals couldn’t move the chains early, fell behind and hadn’t the weapons to pull off a comeback, with two running backs and a back-up tight end topping their receiving charts. No points scored in the second half is a very bleak return for a team who must be rueing a week seventeen loss to Pittsburgh that sent them on the road.

Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys (20-24)

At half-time it looked like a classic case of a blown opportunity by the Dallas Cowboys. Down 17-7 on their own turf after a season of dominance, the Cowboys were poor and Tony Romo was off the boil. It’s a familiar narrative that has followed Romo throughout his Cowboys career, despite posting solid numbers throughout his time as starting quarterback. Yet this time it was different. The much-vaunted Cowboys offensive line failed to protect him, and the run game was kept in check by a dominant defensive front. Romo was sacked six times, a record high for the season, but kept his composure and threw some strikes. The touchdown pass to Terrance Williams just before the half breathed new life into the team, even though they still went in two scores down. The defense only surrendered three points in the second half, with a much-improved effort. That clampdown in production allowed the Cowboys to catch up and finally take the lead with just over two minutes remaining. The most relieved man in AT&T Stadium must have been rookie defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence, who recovered a fumble late only to fumble himself on the same play with just seconds remaining, gifting the opposition a free first down in the process. He did then force and recover another fumble on fourth down, atoning for his earlier error and ending the game. Dallas move on to a road game against the Green Bay Packers, knowing such a sloppy start next week will surely see their Super Bowl hopes go down in flames.

The Detroit Lions should have won this game. Leading 17-7 at the half, the Lions had been in complete control throughout the first half, but the offense ground to a halt in the second half. Matt Stafford is rightly criticised for poor technique and decision-making at times, but it was the clear absence of a running game in the second half did for the Lions. The defense was on top all day, particularly in the trenches with Ndomakung Suh and his accomplices pressurising Romo from first drive to last, sacking him on six different occasions. The Cowboys were made to work very hard for every yard, although they did have issues covering Jason Witten at key junctures in the second half, with the tight end grabbing five balls for 63 yards, securing a huge fourth down conversion in the process. The Lions will bemoan a contentious pass interference call that was reversed late in the fourth quarter, leaving them in a 4th and 1 situation, but Jim Caldwell’s refusal to go for it, a horrendously botched punt that went ten yards and a superb Cowboys drive combined to dump the Lions out.

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